Tampered tests a terrible lesson to learn

JEAN MARBELLA

Students ill-served by testing scandal

May 29, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

I was given a spelling test once, for a secretarial job that I was trying to get for the summer before college, in which I had to pick out words on a list that were misspelled and correct them.

I turned the test in, the interviewer went off to grade it and returned, sighing. I'd gotten too many words wrong to pass and, while she wasn't supposed to do this, she was going to let me take it again.

You can see where this is going: I managed to make an even bigger mess of it, "fixing" words that were already spelled correctly, leaving the misspelled ones alone or perhaps finding ways to further misspell them.

It strikes me as funny now — at this point, what job other than at Merriam-Webster requires a spelling test?

At the time, though, I remember slinking out of the office feeling awful: For one thing, this woman really seemed to want to hire me, bending the rules to give me a second chance, and I let her down.

But for another thing, I also slunk out of there not just jobless but clueless as to how any of those words should or shouldn't have been spelled.

That's how it is with tests: Unless you get feedback — the grade school teacher's red pencil marks, the college professor's notes in the margins of your blue book — you learn nothing from a test.

That's where I'm at with the scandal over the test scores at George Washington Elementary. As The Baltimore Sun reported last week, much of the school's increase in standardized test scores a couple of years ago came as the result of cheating rather than achievement.

It wasn't the students who cheated, city and state schools officials were quick to note, but one or more adults at George Washington. The officials, whose near-"CSI"-level investigation found multiple erasures on test booklets that switched incorrect answers to correct ones, do not know who tampered with the forms, but the principal has retired and been stripped of her teaching license.

This story is sad and enraging at the same time. Kids at the school were already making progress, yet for some reason, someone decided to go for even greater glory. And did it in an entirely ham-handed fashion, sending scores skyrocketing in a way that was sure to generate suspicion, especially among the cynics who question any advance in the city. Yet I suppose we should be grateful for the clumsiness, because a more subtle sleight of hand might have gone undiscovered.

Today, reading the past coverage of when the school won accolades for its progress is slightly sickening — the preening by the now-departed principal, the tributes the students innocently paid to their teachers for helping them do so well on the tests.

And surely the revelations will have a ripple effect beyond George Washington, casting a shadow of suspicion on other schools should they, too, show big jumps in future test scores.

Not to excuse what happened there — it's beyond inexcusable — but surely this is also a time to question the cult of the test. The focus on testing in public schools has intensified in recent years, as has the pressure to produce better scores. Teaching to the test, as critics frequently say, has replaced simply teaching to educate.

I don't necessarily argue against testing, or its importance as a way of measuring the progress of students, teachers, principals and school systems as a whole. There has to be a way, however imperfect, to quantify how schools are doing if we ever hope to truly not leave any student behind.

But somehow, what's gained in the aggregate may come at the expense of the individual. These tests can tell us what a classroom or a school has done as a whole, but not what the problem is with any one student. That's not their mission, of course, and surely they're not intended to replace the real work of the classroom, the actual exercises and discussions and homework.

And yet if you were one of those kids whose test booklet was altered, you don't know how many, if any, of your answers were changed, or how many you got right on your own, or which ones. In other words, you don't know what you know or don't know, and that is one terrible lesson to learn.

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